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What it takes to survive a disaster

Author Mike Tougias believes some key strategies for making it through a catastrophe also come in handy in everyday life.

A mountain ridge in Austria where an avalanche occurred last week.-/ZEITUNGSFOTO.AT/AFP via Getty Images

You’re stranded alone on a desolate trail after you fell down a 60-foot cliff and broke your legs.

Or perhaps you’re clinging to a raft on a storm-tossed sea after your sailboat was swamped by a massive wave.

Maybe your car has careened off the road into a deep embankment where no one can see you and you are stuck for days without food and water.

Could you survive such catastrophes? Your chances might be better if you follow simple strategies used by individuals who beat the odds and came home alive from them.

Mike Tougias relays the stories of these ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances in his new book, “Extreme Survival: Lessons from Those Who Have Triumphed Against All Odds.”

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Tougias, who lives in Mendon and Plymouth, has chronicled examples of extreme survival in several books over the past 30 years. In researching such stories, Tougias realized it was more than luck that enabled these people to make it out alive. He discovered many had taken basic-yet-critical steps to ensure their survival. These include:

Small steps. When faced with disaster, don’t become overwhelmed by the challenge ahead. Rather, focus on taking the first small steps toward your ultimate goal of survival. Forward progress — even inches at a time — often provides the motivation to keep going.

Take Amy Racina, for example. While hiking alone in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 2003, she fell down a cliff and shattered her legs and hips. Since no one was expecting her back for several days, Racina realized she needed to act if she was going to survive. So, despite extreme pain, she began slowly dragging her body down the mountain.

Racina knew her only hope was to get to a trail where someone would find her. The closest one was a mile away, but she was determined to do it. To begin, she later said, “I chose a goal that was 10 yards away.” Racina made it to the trail and was rescued.

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Stay in the moment. Assigning blame or trying to figure out how you got into such a predicament is a waste of time and energy. The important thing is to remain focused on the present situation and what you need to do to overcome it. Don’t worry about the things you can’t control; instead, zero in on what you can do to improve your circumstances and stay alive.

In 1982, Brad Cavanaugh, who now lives in Bourne, and Deborah Scaling survived the sinking of their sailboat after it was struck by a huge wave. “This is so bad,” Cavanaugh remembered thinking. However, he and Scaling stayed calm while a violent ocean and large sharks threatened them. Cavanaugh and Scaling strung wires across their raft and lay on them so they could get their bodies out of the cold water and avoid hypothermia. Their levelheaded thinking and careful response to danger enabled them to make it back after three others who had been on the sailboat succumbed to the elements.

Adrenaline is the enemy. Avoid the urge to act on impulse. Instead of panicking, examine all options and make decisions based on the situation at hand. That’s what John Vihtelic did in 1976 after his car went off the road and slid down a 150-foot ravine.

Trapped in his vehicle with his leg pinned in the wreckage, the former Green Beret wanted to scream for help, but he realized no one would hear him. Instead, he took stock of his predicament and made a mental list of all the materials available to him.

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Vihtelic then ripped up the portion of his car that he could reach and made a fishing pole from roof struts and fabric — not for fishing but for drinking from the creek that was 10 feet away. He attached his T-shirt to his makeshift rod and cast it into the creek. By doing that several times, he found he could squeeze out enough liquid to survive.

As the days wore on, Vihtelic realized no one was going find him. So he used his makeshift fishing pole to get a rock from the stream and began chopping away at the tree root that was pinning his foot in the car.

After 16 days, Vihtelic was finally free. He then dragged himself up the ravine, where a passing motorist spotted him. A foot had to be amputated, but he was alive.

Each of the survivors in “Extreme Survival,” was determined to get through their ordeal or die trying. They all kept up a constant chatter of encouragement in their minds.

Tougias thinks these survival strategies are not just for dangerous moments; they can be used to help us through everyday crises. Tougias himself thought of the need to remain optimistic when he got long-term COVID and found himself in a deep fatigue for five months. “Each day I tried to do something productive. And while I couldn’t write, I could do online research or take notes,” he says. “The power of small steps helped me through that difficult time.”

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Dave Kindy, a freelance writer living in Plymouth, has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, and Air & Space.